We now know that sixteen years of military operations in Afghanistan have been an unmitigated strategic failure. Nevertheless, McMaster advocated committing to even more decades of involvement, no matter the cost to our country. This strategy would only deepen our failure––not reverse it.
Candidate Trump’s Views on Iraq and Afghanistan
In contrast, Trump has consistently said he was against nation-building. Prior to the elevation of McMaster, then-candidate Trump’s instincts on Afghanistan centered on withdrawal, or at the very most, engaging Pakistan to a greater degree. Bill O’Reilly asked during a Fox News 2011 interview, “What I’m getting from you, though, is you would withdraw U.S. troops out of Afghanistan?” Trump replied, “Yes, I would.”
Even in late 2016, Trump remained against deepening involvement in Afghanistan. Two months before the election, The Diplomat considered what a President Trump might mean for U.S. policy on Afghanistan. They noted that Trump “has consistently opposed U.S. nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. In a 2013 tweet, Trump called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and deplored the waste of billions of dollars that could be used to ‘rebuild the United States.’”
McMaster’s Views on North Korea
McMaster has long viewed North Korea as a major enemy threat and his advice to the president reflects this predisposition. In a May 2016 speech at CSIS, McMaster said it was “difficult to overstate the threat from North Korea.” America’s nearly seventy years of stationing troops in Korea was “instructive for us as well, for the Army and for the joint forces. . . . What the experience in Korea tells us is the importance of consolidation . . . [and that] there are no short-term solutions to long-term problems.”
Yet American interests overwhelmingly lie in lowering tensions with North Korea and reducing the chances of unleashing a war that, in a worst-case scenario, could result in the deaths of millions and potentially result in unnecessary conflict with China. While often talking about how war must be viewed in its social and political contexts, he seems curiously unconcerned with how aggressive military power and permanent garrisoning foreign countries creates animosities and fears that could lead to the very war he says he wants to prevent. Then-candidate Trump, in contrast, seemed to focus more on solving the problem rather than relying increasingly on the military instrument.
Candidate Trump’s Views on North Korea
Prior to the election, Trump said he would be willing to talk to Kim Jong-un, knowing that his nuclear capabilities were growing. “At the same time I would put a lot of pressure on China,” he explained in May 2016, “because economically we have tremendous power over China.” Now, the president threatens “fire and fury” and that he might “totally destroy” them, which seems more in line with McMaster’s militaristic worldview than with Trump’s prior to McMaster’s arrival.
Like other U.S. administrations of the past, Trump has been trying to use sanctions to pressure Pyongyang. “But both President Trump and his national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster,” the New York Times pointed out, “have talked openly about a last-resort option if diplomacy fails and the nuclear threat mounts: what General McMaster describes as ‘preventive war.’” Candidate Trump never hinted, much less threatened, to launch a ‘preventive war’ against North Korea.
Over the years Trump has expressly and repeatedly said he wants the United States out of the nation-building business. When he turns to his National Security Advisor, Trump should expect the options he’s presented to feature ways to accomplish the non-nation-building intent that candidate Trump ran on.
Yet if the general continues to present options that clearly feature military and nation-building choices as superior, then we can expect Trump to continue following the same status quo foreign policy that has resulted in almost two decades of failure.
I believe H. R. McMaster is a patriot who loves his country and is a highly qualified professional soldier who will serve the president to the best of his ability. If he can learn to subordinate his personal inclinations to a greater degree and offer policy recommendations that are in line with Trump’s instincts, then he can still prove to be an effective national-security advisor.
But if the president continues to receive policy recommendations that do not reflect his fundamental beliefs––the beliefs that got him elected––he may conclude that McMaster would better serve the country in another capacity while elevating a new man or woman to the position of advisor.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments, one of which was with H.R. McMaster. Follow him at @DanielLDavis1.